October 15, 2018

Coming Full Circle

Before Robbie Baitz was Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright, he was, in his words, “a smart-ass little spoiled Beverly Hills snot” who worked as a gofer for a couple of Hollywood con artists. Rather than sensibly going East to college, he had elected to remain in Los Angeles to glean some life experience, and so had fallen in with “a den of thieves,” he says.

He took the gofer job out of “sheer necessity,” he adds, as his parents were living abroad and he had been fired, after just five hours, from a previous job as a waiter. Thereafter, the gofer-slave spent endless days tooling around Los Angeles in his rusty orange VW Rabbit, searching for just the right brand of Genoa tuna or smoked Hunan peppers for his despotic but lovable bosses.

In an essay published in The New York Times, he recalls how he “picked up … laundry (stains remaining, I was blamed); Chinese food (the real cause of same); answered phones (danger, creditors),” and fell in love with the producers and their “pageantry of damage control.”

They were Jewish exiles on the fringes of Hollywood, “never quite let into the party,” Baitz says. And they loved the bright but whiny gofer because he was also an outsider: Baitz had attended an Anglican boys school in South Africa, where he was reviled as the “American ‘Jew’ kid, the sole child with black hair.” He had lived all over the world with his parents, always feeling like an exile, a “wandering Jew.”

Back in his native Los Angeles in the 1980s, he was captivated by his employers’ byzantine, elusive business dealings, which seemed like rich material for a play. “It was theatrical,” says Baitz, now 38, one of the most produced playwrights of his generation. “It was like a Neil Simon version of ‘Death of a Salesman,’ with all the little dramas of trying to get to the next good deal.”